Abolition hailed, still lots of work ahead

PETALING JAYA: The abolition of the mandatory death penalty is just the first step towards criminal justice reform, say advocates, even as they lauded the government’s move.

Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) described it as a historic move, noting that while the death penalty still exists, the abolition of the mandatory death sentence would empower judges with the discretion to mete out alternative sentencing.

“We also welcome the fact that the Cabinet agreed to the abolition after the Law Minister presented a report on alternative sentencing and how it is far superior to the death penalty,” said its executive director Sevan Doraisamy in a statement.

“The (death penalty) betrays the principle of human rights and is also seen as cruel, inhumane and degrading under international law,” he added.

Sevan said that according to Amnesty International, the death penalty is still admissible for around 30 offences in Malaysia, and of those, 11 carry the mandatory punishment.

“The stark reality remains that there are still 1,366 people on death row as at September 2021, of whom a significant majority were found guilty under Section 39(B) of the Dangerous Drugs Act 1952.

“Therefore, we are also delighted that the government, in working towards abolishing the mandatory death penalty, will be looking into revising this Act,” said Sevan.

However, Suaram also said that it maintains the view that Malaysia should be looking at the total abolition of the death penalty.

Lawyers for Liberty (LFL) adviser N. Surendran said the government should be applauded for taking this long-awaited step.

“It is a big positive for our country’s image and an important step towards the total abolition of the death penalty.

“The moratorium against executions must also continue,” he said.

He also said that alternative sentences should focus on the rehabilitation of offenders.

“Those who have already been in prison for a long period of time prior to this new law must have their time behind bars taken into account.

“The alternative imprisonment sentences must also contain set review provisions with international standards or human rights norms taken into account,” he said, adding that the alternative sentences should not be excessive nor oppressive.

He added that LFL also opposed the imposition of caning in addition to imprisonment as it was both cruel and degrading.

Social activist Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye also applauded the move, but said Putrajaya has to obtain more public feedback when it is studying the proposed alternative sentences.

“There are some against the death penalty and there are some who are for it. Let there be an open discussion on this matter,” he said in a statement.

Lee also said he had come across many cases where drug traffickers were facing the gallows because the judge could not exercise discretionary powers due to the mandatory death penalty.

He added that the mandatory death sentence had not been effective in bringing down drug trafficking cases, with statistics showing many drug mules arrested over the years.

“We must address trafficking by getting to the root cause, which is arresting drug kingpins,” he said.

Batu Kawan MP Kasthuri Patto said she was elated at the announcement and that it came as a pleasant surprise.

“Hopefully this can create a snowball effect in the region, particularly in countries that are still practising the mandatory death penalty.

“At the same time, it opens up gateways for the government to review the prison and criminal justice system, among others,” she said when contacted.

She also applauded de facto law minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar for his political will and courageous stand.

Kasthuri added that she was looking forward to the parliamentary sessions where the Bills will be tabled and what the amendments would be.

“I sincerely hope that lawmakers will be able to debate this passionately in Parliament in the interest of rehabilitative justice alongside reforming the criminal justice system.

“At the same time, we should strive to engage with international organisations that have campaigned for the abolition of the death penalty to identify the best practices for it, alongside learning what challenges other countries have faced when moving in this direction,” she said.

Constitutional lawyer Surendra Ananth said those currently on death row should be entitled to have their death sentences reviewed.

“This should be done once the law is amended for those who were sentenced under the mandatory death penalty,” he said.

He added that as the law stands, imprisonment including life sentences, fines and whipping were possible substitutes, but noted that he was against whipping as it violated the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment and Punishment (CAT).

Muda information chief Luqman Long also commended the decision.

“This is a significant milestone towards ensuring those found guilty are given a second chance. Substitute sentences should also lean towards restorative justice,” he said in a statement.

Yesterday, Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said Putrajaya had agreed to abolish the mandatory death penalty with a substitute or alternative sentence to be imposed at the discretion of the courts.

The Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Parliament and Law) said the decision was reached following the presentation of the Report on the Study of Substitute Sentences on Mandatory Death Penalty at the Cabinet meeting on Wednesday.

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